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Illini Basketball

The Third Side

Following that tirade at 16:08, the Illini might have felt motivated to execute. But they didn’t.

We don’t know whether a set was called during all that yelling. If Brad Underwood drew up an action, it must have planned for a low-post feed.

For whatever reason, the team did nothing better, or well, once they broke that huddle. The Illini suffered through one of their worst offensive possessions of the season. It seemed as if they were trying to compile a highlight reel of bad tendencies.

Succinctly, they failed to reverse the ball. It’s been a talking point all year, and something they still get wrong. For every “we need to fix that” in a postgame remark to the media, there are as many further iterations of “stickiness” as the lads like to say. The ball “sticks.”

Missouri foisted an intense defensive effort, certainly the most insistent, unrelenting 40 minutes of defensive pressure these Illini have faced all year. And this one possession showed just how effective that type of effort can be against a young team that’s still trying to learn its reads.

The major combatants were centers Reed Nikko and Kofi Cockburn. Nikko won.

At this crucial moment in the game, and after spending a precious timeout, Illinois fails to convert. Instead, it’s another turnover and a foul.

And although Reed Nikko’s defensive footwork was superb, and deserves a lot of credit; it’s also true that Illinois helped him immensely by not reversing the ball to the left wing (the second side), forcing Nikko to establish a different defensive posture. And then, ideally, reverse the ball again (the third side) while Kofi seals Nikko with his big ole butt, creating a drive for Trent from the short corner.

The Underwood administration has seen some fantastic back screens and butt screens. Jermaine Hamlin had a great one for that Samson Oladimeji alley-oop.

Jermaine’s screen is quick, simple and effective.

Adonis de la Rosa executed a beautiful butt screen at Northwestern last year. Giorgi did one for Kipper just a couple of games ago.

It’s a really effective maneuver, but it doesn’t work against a well-coached team that’s already established its defensive position. you’ve got to get them out of position to make it work, and you get them out of position by reversing the ball.

Perhaps the problem against Mizzou was simply that Kofi Cokburn was, as Underwood pointed out, ten games into his college career. He might have popped backward sooner, when he felt Nikko release for the double-team. But it seems likely that Da’Monte would’ve been smothered regardless.

And while Kofi did struggle all game against Missouri’s bigger, quicker defenders (i.e. bigger and quicker than he’s accustomed to playing, so far), reversing the ball would have afforded Kofi the opportunity to re-position himself for screening a backdoor cut.

Some people scoff at the notion that this team is “young.” But they really are young. More importantly, they haven’t played together as a unit in the way that, say, Dee-Deron-Luther-Roger-James did.

If you’ll recall, those guys looked pretty bad in January of 2004. They’d lost in the B1G-ACC to North Carolina. They got clocked by Providence in the Jimmy V Classic. They scraped by a 16-14* Mizzou team in Braggin’ Rights 71-70. Then they started the conference schedule at 3-3.

Things looked bleak. Disjointed. And then that team didn’t lose again until the B1G Tournament’s championship game.

So be patient. Let’s see how this comes together.

*Mizzou’s website credits that team with a 20-14 record, including two wins over themselves in pre-season intrasquad games and a 0-0 win over the Blissless Baylor Bears. You should laugh at them, point fingers, and dump popcorn on their heads.

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Illini basketball

Re-Boot

Trent is fine. Da’Monte is fine. AJ is Brad Underwood’s favorite & nominal MVP.

Illini fans need only worry about everyone else.

Last time around, I wrote about Adonis, Ayo and Andres. The Triple-A would be the key to success, I said.

In Maui, Adonis corrected his errors of judgment & execution. Against Gonzaga, he converted 2-of-4 shots, which is nearly good enough for a 7-footer with negative quickness. Slightly alarming was the fact that he attempted those shots in five minutes of PT.

Against Iowa State, he equaled the 2-of-4, converted both of his free throws, and stretched his shooting over a 14-minute span. Even better.

Then, against Xavier, Bizarro Adonis returned, reviving his Mike Thorne impression with 1-of-5 flung from the field.

His reversion worsened against awful Mississippi Valley State. He was 1-of-3 from the field, and managed a -3 point impact against the 345th best team in the college basketball. His team won by 19 points, but lost when Adonis was on the floor.

Brad Underwood says Adonis is working his way back into shape, and that’s the reason for his poor shooting. Perhaps he’s building Adonis in the media while taking a different tone behind closed doors. That’s Underwood’s way.

Or maybe the coach has so much on his mind that he doesn’t see the huge problem here. Adonis, right now, is killing his team. He’s a turnover on offense. The numbers paint a bleak picture. It needs fixed immediately.

Andres Feliz is struggling at the rim, and — to a surprising degree recently — in the backcourt.

Underwood says he doesn’t want to dampen Dre’s instincts completely.  It’s refreshing to know that the coach sees a fine line here. His predecessors were hidebound in their philosophy of player freedom.

But Underwood also says Andres needs to recognize, when he gets too deep and the Tall Hands are blocking his view of the hoop, that it’s time to pass the ball.

Illini shooters have been pretty effective on wide-open threes.

But AJ, Alan and the gang can’t shoot if the ball is being batted out-of-bounds, or into the hands of an opponent.

Even Ayo, the Heralded Savior, has been slow in adjusting to the height and quickness of major college defenders. Consequently, he spends more than an advantageous amount of time crumpled in a heap on the baseline.

Kipper’s been broken since that little shit Mac McClung outhustled him for a loose ball, and reverse jammed it on Lou Henson Court.

Perhaps it’s not fair to expect him to guard power forwards and centers for 30 minutes per game while also running a fast-paced offense, but that’s the lot he’s drawn.

It’s especially sad to watch Kipper unravel because he’s the Illini who might have been the dominant upperclassman. And if he’s not, that’s another reason this season could go quickly down the drain.

Perhaps scoring 14 against MVSU will give Kipper his groove back. He’s done it against high-major opponents. but perhaps not while manning the low-post.

These are just the offensive problems. The defense should get better as the newcomers convert knowledge & experience into habits. But unless these offensive tendencies get fixed, it’ll be a loooong season.

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Illini basketball

Underneath

Everything seemed so great when Illinois faced short, Division III opponents. The question lingered, though: “How will they perform against tall people?”

The sound of a basketball batted by shot-blockers, banging the side of the backboard, bounding away as time ran expired, will stick with me for a while. 

Giorgi Bezhanishvili, with three Georgetown defenders looming, was unlikely to score the needed 7 points in those final five seconds.  But the futility of that moment was punctuated by the unusual sound. It was something you’d hear in an automotive repair shop. Air-pressure versus rubber. It sounded like a tennis ball caught in a ceiling fan.

That sound represents the end of our disillusion re: this Illini team. The lack of height was always going to be a problem. Is it insurmountable?

To overcome the interior deficit, Illini guards must be nearly perfect, and Adonis de la Rosa must NOT be Mike Thorne.

Thorne is a smart, kind, gentle and funny. De la Rosa is smart, funny, conversational and pedagogical. Neither of them deserves to be insulted by any Illini watcher. But it’s important to know that Thorne’s relativism about field-goal percentage is the reason John Groce lives in Akron, Ohio.

When Thorne took the ball on the low-post, he should have converted 60% of his FG attempts, or passed to a wing. He did neither. He’d usually fling the ball toward the basket and hope for the best. That’s unacceptable.

One game into his Illini career, Adonis is following the Thorne blueprint.

De la Rosa got the ball in the low-post during the first half of Tuesday’s game against Georgetown. He lumbered around for a while, moving slowly, feeling out the defense. The defense collapsed.

One sensed an intake of breath from the crowd. No one knew what to expect, and hoped for the best.

The best didn’t happen. 

Instead, an errant 12-footer sailed within three feet of its intended target, the Hoyas grabbed the rebound, and a possession ended without a basket. Statisticians tally one missed FG in these situations. It feels like a turnover. Not getting a good look from the low post is bad basketball. 

In the second half, Adonis got the ball at the usual pinch-post position that Brad Underwood prefers, took another shot at lumbering, plowed and hooked his man simultaneously, fell to the floor, dropped the ball, never attempted a shot AND drew a charging call.

Illinois led the game at that point. But Georgetown gained a lot of confidence from that possession. The Hoyas went on a 20-8 run from that point, and that was that.

Adonis can do good things with his big body. Just a simple back screen with that big ole butt can open a pathway from the wing

In practice, he connects on a high percentage of jumpers from the elbow. That should be his bread and butter, if Illini guards can learn the pick n’ pop. 

Creating space for Illini ball-handlers should be Priority One for the bigs.

Illinois’ three-headed monster was down a head against Georgetown, and maybe that was the difference. Without Trent Frazier’s minutes, Andres Feliz and Ayo Dosunmu got tired. Before we knew it, Tyler Underwood was running the point.

Feliz rallied the troops in the second half, but ran out of gas. He tugged his shirt to signal the bench that he needed out.

Overall, Andres was great in one way, and disappointing in two ways. He demonstrated a fearless disregard for defenders. But he air-balled his threes, and he took bad angles on lay-ups.

For Illinois to be successful this season, Feliz will need to fix those two problems. At Ubben, his three-point shooting is solid. Can we assume he’s still adjusting to the depth-perception of a 15,000-seat arena? Does that man he’ll be automatic at Lahaina’s high school gym-sized Civic Center?

The bad angles were outnumbered by the good. Still pictures from the Georgetown game recall Tracy Abrams from the time of Illinois’s last Maui trip.

Abrams was cutting angles back then. He had not yet developed the tendency to go right at opposing defenses. Feliz did both against the Hoyas. The latter is a remnant of his successes against JUCO and Dominican competition. It won’t work against seven-footers.

Feliz is a guy you should trust in the closing minutes. You can put the ball in his hands, but you need him out there because he’s a pain in the ass on defense. The Illini need him to be flawless, superhuman, to compensate for interior shortcomings.

Ayo’s the guy you really want to have the ball in crunchtime. But for all the celebration of his 25-point performance, for all the glowing media coverage; one guy, Ayo, knew that he let his team down.

Ayo’s owning the loss impressed Brad Underwood, who also seemed to think it ridiculous that Ayo blamed himself. But if nothing else, it’s important to acknowledge that Ayo acknowledged it.

Blocked

You want your team leader to feel unsatisfied by his performance in a loss. You want him to recognize his mistakes in a win, too. You want him to keep learning.

Ayo and Andres might adjust. They have time.

Adonis doesn’t have time. If he hasn’t learned by now, he’s unlikely to learn. So the question is whether Brad Underwood wants to rein him in. So far, the Underwood leash seems long.

On the other hand, we know that Underwood chose to hire an officiating crew for every 2018-19 Illini practice specifically because he knows specific players need to overcome specific bad habits.

Illini fans should consider whether they want another coach who restricts his players’ freedom. it didn’t work for Weber or Groce. Discouraging Brandon Paul from driving, or yanking Aaron Jordan after a missed shot, had obvious negative psychological affects on Brandon Paul and Aaron Jordan. It took a lot of undoing to revert their learned behaviors.

But you’d think that a fifth-year senior, hired for a specific role, might be different.

Adonis de la Rosa should never again dribble the ball twice in a single possession. He certainly shouldn’t dribble the ball around the lane, looking for something to open up.

Maybe this problem won’t find a fix before the Gonzaga game on Monday, but Brad Underwood had better fix it if he wants the season to end well.

The rest of the team has flaws, but it’s the execution by these three guys that turned the spotlight on Illinois’ Achilles Heel.

AJ was a ghost against the Hoyas, but as a decoy, he was pretty effective in the first half. Kipper made great plays against Georgetown, perhaps offset by his play in crunchtime. Fans complained about his execution, but Kipper was among the best at taking the pinch-post hand-off. His strength and height make him a tough cover from the wing.

That Underwood continues to build Kipper, rather than tear him down, gives us an insight on Underwood’s psychological methods.

Da’Monte Williams was solid, and Giorgi looked better than most freshmen. You got what you expected from those guys. The daunting thing for Illinio players and fans is the thin margin for error. If you don’t get what you expect from those guys, Illinois loses. No one can have an off-night.

The good news is that Gonzaga is up next, and as everyone knows, Gonzaga rarely features annoying white guys.

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Illini basketball

Ready or not, here we go …

Welp, the 2019 Illini basketball season is here. I have an unwarranted hunch that it might turn out better than The Experts predict. That’s because I’ve seen Andres Feliz and Giorgi Bezhanishvili in action.

Sportswriters know what Illinois will  get from its veterans. Most basketball professionals have seen Ayo Dosunmu play at some level. But most of these analysts don’t hang out at Ubben, and haven’t seen Andres or Giorgi. If Illinois surpasses its low expectations this year, these two newcomers will bear significant responsibility.

So far, the only thing Illini fans know about Giorgi is that he’s weird.
His unusual (in fact, foreign) personality contrasts sharply with his reserved American teammates. Case in point: Giorgi kissed me when I arrived at practice this morning. I don’t recall being kissed by any previous Illini. I’m pretty sure it’s a first. 

The Lovers

The smiley faced singing & dancing act works to camouflage a vital point about Giorgi: He is a vicious competitor. By vicious, I mean angry, devious, even spiteful. There will be altercations this season. Giorgi will provoke them.

This Mr. Hyde side appears, as far as I know, only on court. Genial Giorgi, the off-court Dr. Jekyll, seems real.

First time observers will also be stunned by Giorgi’s passing, and the all-encompassing court vision that enables it. In a recent practice, Georgi whipped a two-handed no-look pass from the near side low-post to Feliz, in the far corner. As his defender closed in, Andres returned a similarly impressive bullet, right back to Georgi, who immediately swung the ball to the near arc for a wide-open Trent Frazier three-pointer, again with two hands and no eyes. Did an entire second elapse before the ball had crossed the court twice? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Adonis de la Rosa is ready.  Today, after practice, he stuck around to tutor Samba Kane on low-post moves. After that additional work out, he said his knee feels great and that he’d like to play tomorrow night.

Kane is perhaps the most polite human to wear an Illini uniform. After the the tutorial, he asked de la Rosa if they could have an extra session every day.  Adonis said yes.


The lesson featured advice every big man knows. You’ve got to move your defender with your lower body, never your arms. Once you land on the blue line (the exact middle of the lane, where the Underwood Administration affixes blue duct tape to the floor), you’re in the money zone, where only good things can happen. Samba Kane would know these things because he’s not a basketball player, yet.

Adonis taught Samba how his hips should rotate through a series of low-post maneuvers. Where his feet should be in relation to those hips. When to bring the ball down for the single dribble.

After Samba reached the Money Zone, he clanged a lay-up off the side of the rim. “I want to see you dunk that every time,” admonished his teacher.

You’ve heard that Da’Monte Williams morphed into a jump-shooter. It’s true. His mechanics are perfect. Even in transition, he manages to square himself to the basket, and fast.

Aaron Jordan talks about this newfound marksmanship more than anyone. Jordan’s praise for Williams is completely undeterred by the obvious threat that a sharpshooting, ball-handling, rebounding Williams poses to Jordan’s PT.

The ball-handling is key. Williams didn’t commit any head-scratching turnovers in the last scrimmage this reporter watched.

The Fistfighting Fours

It’s unfortunate that sports requires us to convert warm, thoughtful people like Kipper Nichols into cold-blooded killing machines.

On the other hand, as one Illini assistant observed after the recent Fistfight at the Fourspot, “he’s from inner-city Cleveland. He’s got some dog in him.”

You probably read about the scrum between Kipper  and Tevian Jones. Brian Binz did a fine job reporting the facts. He and Derek Piper were standing on the floor when the fight broke out, so I’m not sure that either of their accounts could accurately capture the the ferocity of the fight, because it occurred at the opposite end of the court. The fact is that Kipper threw a sincere right cross at Tevian, and missed only because a teammate was already pulling Tevian away. Tevian did not doubt the sincerity of that punch. He saw red.

At least six people held Tevian against the far wall, for a not insignificant amount of time, to keep him away from Kipper. Orlando Antigua’s belly featured prominently in the defense. He pinned Tevian to that wall.

Yes, at the end of practice, Kipper put his arm around Tevian in the huddle. Then as the huddle broke, Kipper hit Tevian, playfully, on the back of the head. Total Alpha move.

Point is, Kipper is being pushed by a younger, more athletic, and similarly debonair whippersnapper. It’s an explosive rivalry. Ideally it will make them both better. Kipper has already acknowledged Tevian’s talent. At today’s practice, he praised Tevian’s enthusiasm and potential.

It’s possible that the three best players on the team are Feliz, Ayo and Trent Frazier. But there’s no reason to speculate about that. The season begins in 25 hours. We’ll find out soon enough.

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Illini Basketball

Practice thoughts, October 2018

Homecoming weekend included a basketball practice at Ubben, first thing this morning. Unlike last time, there were no Official Visitors. So the team wasn’t focused on throwing lobs to 17 year-olds.

Spectators numbered about one-third the size of the Tshiebwe-Liddell-Shannon crowd. That is, they lined the catwalk one-deep rather than three.

They learned that Giorgi Bezhanishvili is not a goofball all the time. He’s a shittalker. Giorgi’s shit was mostly directed at Samba Kane, who might have wilted on the spot. When teammates and coaches talk about Samba, the sentence usually begins with “he’s had a hard time because …” and usually continues with the themes like “arrived late” and “new to the game.”  Piling on psychologically doesn’t seem fair, but it’s hard to imagine prospective opponents treating Samba more deferentially.

Mike LaTulip, Brandon Paul and Steve Bardo joined the team for a Homecoming photo, after practice

Giorgi should be raw too, but he’s not. He moves fluidly, and finishes at the rim. That might change when a competent defender over 6’6″ challenges him. This Illini team has no such defender. Adonis de la Rosa dressed for practice, but did not participate. Anthony Higgs began the session looking at an iPad, reclining on a cushioned table, in the training room. He didn’t enter the Corzine Gym for the first 20 minutes, and then rode the stationary bike for the next 20. Samson Oladimeji and Zach Griffith did their best (Oladimeji’s rejection on a Tevian Jones lay-up was a highlight of the day), but neither is big enough to present a B1G-caliber post-presence.

So, we might not know what Georgi can’t do for another month or three. As of now, he’s a definite starter.

If the season began today, the starting five would be

  • 1 – Andres Feliz
  • 1 – Ayo
  • 1 – Trent
  • 4 – Kipper
  • 4 – Giorgi

That’s no slight to Aaron Jordan. He continues to burnish his coach-on-the-floor bona fides, spreads the defense and drains threes. In that regard, he’s the quintessential sixth man. Brad Underwood might need to start him, but ideally Aaron would enter the game after assessing what’s happening. 

Da’Monte Williams continues to make unforced errors, the kind Underwood claimed he never commits at the beginning of last year (before the Maryland game). Because Feliz offers doggish on-ball defense, and Ayo’s impersonation of a six-foot spider will, arguably, compensate for Monte’s absence, Williams will need to clean up his little mistakes to challenge them for PT. The three-headed PG attack is just too hard to defend. Feliz pushes the ball, and finds the open man. When left alone on the perimeter, he buries his threes.

Saturday’s practice

The wing-to-be-named-later continues to be Alan Griffin. Like many wings of the three-point era, Alan seems comfortable pitching a tent on the arc. Underwood stopped live action to holler at him about another option from the Triple Threat  “Alan!” he called, arms aloft and sweeping downward to indicate an open path to the basket,  “Drive!”

From the sidelines, ex-perimeters Mike LaTulip and Brandon Paul agreed with the assessment. “When your defender is that close up on you, you can always dribble past him,” observed LaTulip.

Also in town for Homecoming were 89ers Steve Bardo and Ryan Baker. Bardo relayed the story of his Bobblehead mishap. He was in Atlanta working on a non-sports TV production (cooking) and missed the deadline for signing his release. Hence, no Steve Bardo Bobblehead.